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Duh: It’s, like, adults don’t get it
New Book Says Teenage Behavior Makes Sense

April 20, 2004 -- What’s wrong with these kids today?

It’s a question American parents have been asking for decades. And the answer always has been just out of reach.

But Murray Milner Jr., a sociologist at the University of Virginia, brings our understanding much closer in this fascinating study that offers insight into the hearts and minds of today’s teenagers.

Milner’s book, “Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools, and the Culture of Consumption,” which will be appearing in bookstores in the coming weeks, beams a powerful light on the world of the contemporary American teenager.

“Why are so many teenagers obsessed with who sits with them at lunch, the brand of clothes they wear, what parties they are invited to, the privacy of their bedrooms, the intrigues of school cliques, who is dating or hooking up with whom, what is the latest popular music?” Milner asks in his new book. “Why have alcohol, drug use and casual sex become widespread? Why the penchant for caste-like divisions? Why are teenagers frequently mean and even cruel to one another?”

Through extensive fieldwork by a team of researchers and reports from high schools around the country, Milner finds that the elaborate social scenes constructed by teenagers from Anchorage, Alas., to Augusta, Ga., are a logical response to the constraints of their lives. Teenagers behave the way they do, not because of raging hormones, or poor parenting or bad schools, but because they’re reacting to the isolated and powerless role that American adults have assigned them. Living in a world ruled and regulated by adults, teenagers have few opportunities to shape the key features of their lives. And so they exert control over their school social scene — with a vengeance:

“Why this near obsession with status? It is because they have so little real economic or political power. They must attend school for most of the day and they have only very limited influence on what happens there….They do, however, have one crucial kind of power: the power to create an informal social world in which they evaluate one another. That is, they can and do create their own status systems — usually based on criteria that are quite different from those promoted by parents or teachers.

“Why are adolescents so concerned about who ‘goes out with’ whom and who eats with whom? It is because they intuitively know that who you associate with intimately has a big effect on your status.”

For his research, Milner relies on an analytical framework he developed for an earlier study of the Indian caste system. He finds interesting parallels in the logic underlying the stratification of society and the methods people use to achieve and sustain separate social groupings. “Where status is important, people try to avoid eating with or marrying inferiors — as executive dining rooms, upper-middle-class dinner parties, debutante balls, and the marriage and eating restrictions of the Indian caste system all indicate,” he writes.

His findings also suggest that America’s consumer society plays an influential role in the lives of status-conscious teenagers:

“Perhaps the thing that American secondary education teaches most effectively is a desire to consume. This is not primarily accomplished via the formal curriculum, but through the status concerns and peer groups that intensify during adolescence. The teenage preoccupation with status and status symbols creates inclinations and perspectives essential to contemporary consumer capitalism. We cannot adequately understand the contemporary world of high school teenagers apart from the context of consumer capitalism. Conversely, we cannot understand the dynamics of 21st-century American capitalism if we do not see the important role that secondary school status systems play in stimulating consumer demand.”

Milner’s academically rigorous study is presented in an accessible, highly readable style. He includes excerpts from field reports to illustrate his points, enriching the reader’s understanding, while adding spice to the text.

This book is a must-read for everyone who lives and works closely with teenagers — secondary school principals, guidance counselors, teachers, ministers and especially, parents. For others, it offers flashes of insight — into our own past and our children’s present.

The author

The author is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the University’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. His books focus on the many faces of status, and include “Status and Sacredness: A General Theory of Status Relations and an Analysis of Indian Culture,” winner of the American Sociological Association’s Distinguished Publication Award, “Unequal Care” and “The Illusion of Equality.”

Contact: Charlotte Crystal, (434) 924-6858

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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